10/05/2012 02:18 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Who Does Your Job -- You or the Suit?

The comedian Steven Wright has a joke about Halloween (I'm going to paraphrase it): "So it was Halloween, and I was looking out my apartment window at the alley next to my apartment, and two cops were running down the alley, but I wasn't sure if they were cops or people dressed up as cops, which is what cops are anyway."

What is a police officer? A police officer is a person who's been to the Police Academy and knows a lot of things most of us don't; but mostly, a cop is a person in a uniform. The uniform is a huge symbol for the job. How do you put on that uniform and not feel cop-ish? It's a cliche, not only for police officers but for anyone who wears a uniform or costume (military, religious, Rockette, etc.): "When I finally put on the uniform, I really felt like a ________ ."

The uniform is way more than the icing on the cupcake. It's identity. It conveys all kinds of messages to the person wearing it, and to everyone else.

Could we imagine that it would be different when we work at a business job? Maybe because I was a corporate HR chief for twenty years, feeling like an opera singer the whole time (because I am one) the notion of a costume and a mask associated with a role -- not a theatrical role, but a regular-job role -- resonates so strongly for me.

We take a job, and we step into the role. We may not even be conscious of the degree to which the job and the expectations we perceive from the people around us shift our behavior. The timbre of our voice changes. Your significant other calls you at the office one day and you answer the phone with your name, and your honey says "Oh, you can't talk?" even though it's you right there on the phone. Your sweetheart can tell you're in the role and the Real You is not available at that moment.

The role, the timbre of the suit and the job and the role and the expectations on you and the stress of the day, they get into your vocal cords. Lying in bed at night when I should have been sleeping, back in my corporate HR days, I used to play back the day's events. There was always an element of horror as I remembered some of the inane and nearly-scripted things I had said in my stressed-out frenzy. "Why in God's name did I say that?" I would wonder, at two in the morning, but the answer was always the same: "Because it was in the script." When it's in the script, it's easy for those words to fall off your lips.

In the moment, in the crush of fear of not hitting deadlines and disappointing people and falling short of the role, the costume, I would have been brusque or by-the-book or even (worst of all) quoted the HR policy manual. I might have stopped being human, even though the word 'human' is right in the job title. I might have fallen into fear and zombie corporate I-can't-be-human-right-now behavior. I did it all the time.

It's spooky, how the suit can change you even when you don't want it to.

It is high time for that to change. We are plenty capable of doing a great job, taking care of our customers and creating great things at work, without the baggage and anxiety that the suit and the role-of-the-suit pile on.

We can be ourselves at work, but if we want to do that, we have to start by talking about the albatross in the room. We have to talk about the hierarchy and fear and control that are baked into the corporate organizational framework (it's the same way at not-for-profits, in academia, in government, and God bless 'em, in startups too). As long as we keep quiet about the suit and the role and the mask and the fakey things we say at work that we'd claw our own eyes out before saying at home or with our friends, nothing will change.

When we start to look at the wall between work and home, and start to let the Kool-Aid drip out of our veins -- the Kool-Aid, I mean, that tells us that if the real person beneath the suit came to work as him- or herself and told the truth about everything, then something terrible would happen -- then we'll begin to shift the energy at work. When we keep playing the role and pretending there's no role, no really, this is just me, I always say things like okey-dokey even with my homies, no, for real, I do -- we depress what our company or our agency can accomplish. We depress our own creativity and spark and random awesomeness. We squash everything down and turn into the suit, instead of just wearing it.

Could anyone pay you enough for you to be willing to do that to yourself?

I talked to a VP the other day, the head of marketing at a big consumer-products company. "Here's my situation," she said. "I have an awesome boss and I'm learning a ton from him. I meet once a month with two of my fellow VPs, and their situations are drastically different from mine."

"How so?" I wanted to know.

"They both work for the same hellish division president, and their lives are being destroyed," she said. "I'm not even exaggerating."

"So what do you three talk about at lunch every month?" I asked her.

"We can't really talk," she said."My two friends are in the pit. They're stuck in venting mode."

"They are battered. They need our monthly lunches to get through, but they have no altitude on their situations. I know you're going to suggest that I get them thinking about job-hunting, but I'm telling you, they have no mojo to even take that on."

"Could you coach them to speak up about the BS they're experiencing?" I asked. "That would shake up the energy, and that can't be bad. If they do that and they get fired as a result, they can try to negotiate a soft landing. If they speak up and the toad boss listens to them, they could change the air quality."

"I understand you," said my friend, "but these friends of mine are barely functioning. They are not about to go head-to-head with their tyrant manager. They are in survival mode."

Both of my friend's peers are earning close to $200K a year. They can't imagine life without that income, so they sacrifice everything (their self-esteem, their emotional health, and their good humor) for the paycheck and the suit that will probably -- if the eight-volume set History of Toad Bosses Throughout History is a reliable reference -- disappear before long anyway.

I hear a variation of this story at least once a day. How did we get to this state -- where fear of some idiot in a bigger suit (just to carry out the analogy) makes us so afraid that we shut down our personality and our spark and try to toe the idiot's line and keep our head down? That is slavery. I don't care whether you're getting $175K a year or not, that is pathetic. When did we turn into people whose mojo was wrapped up so tightly with the business card and the suit that we choose to shut off our trusty gut rather than speak up and say it's raining when we're knee-deep in water?

Our great-grandparents told the truth. They figured out life on the ground every day. They didn't even have the fancy French word 'entrepreneur' in their vocabulary, I'm guessing. They just did the next obvious thing. We can do the same thing, and we'll be better off (and so will our employers, if we work for other people) if we do.

If we go to work as the suit, our health will suffer, our relationships will suffer and our contribution to the planet will diminish. We are alive once, reincarnation aside. How mighty does a fearful boss have to be to put us into mortal fear of using our five (or six) senses for their intended purpose -- to keep us on the path?

How in love with the title and the suit do we have to be to decide, "Nah, it's okay, I'll just tough it out another five or six years and hope it doesn't get worse..."

You won't get respect from anyone until you respect yourself, and oddly, all kinds of brilliant and accomplished people don't have an ounce of respect for themselves. They may respect their trophies -- degrees and certifications and years of experience and SKILLS (God help us!) -- but they walk around with a hole inside them where their native self-respect should be. Those impressive trophies and accolades, conferred by other people, can feel more real than the instinct, whimsy, creative thought, and God-given horse sense that's the real gem beneath the trophies. We may have forgotten that we have anything of value to offer an employer, a client or the planet at all, apart from the list of trophies that we've been taught to believe define us.

It's 2012. We can go to work as ourselves and take power back from the suit (not to mention the pumps, the pearls, the $900 briefcase and the hand-tooled belt made in Mexico, the one that you believe marks you as "not quite as corporate as the rest of these guys"). Theatre is fun, but we shouldn't have to act our way through a day at work. We can go to work as ourselves, speak our truth in the moment when the words hit us, and trust that our truth and our gut will lead us toward the right people and away from the toads. We can do that, and then watch to see how the universe responds. I think we'll be amazed at what happens.